A modern classic on exploring and understanding the Antarctic, the most uncharted place on our planet. Terra Incognita is a meditation on the landscape, myths and history of one of the remotest parts of the globe, as well as an encounter with the international temporary residents of the region - living in close confinement despite the surrounding acres of white space - and the mechanics of day-to-day life in extraordinary conditions. Through Sara Wheeler, the Antarctic is revealed, in all its seductive mystery. 'Antarctica could hope for no better chronicler: spirited, humorous and highly intelligent, she is also a writer of rare talent' Observer
Ms. Wheeler does some things quite well. The book is full of stories about Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, Wilson and a host of other figures from the early days of polar exploration. These stories are timed beautifully and go into just enough depth that they bring those early days to life. Rather than being a distraction from her adventures, they serve as a backdrop that provides color and contrast to the present.
She does an equally good job of giving you a picture of what life is like now, filling the book with tiny little details that turn abstract facts into vivid images—calling -50°C "cold" is true, but abstract; saying that -10°C "had come to seem tropical" is only slightly more real; saying that they threw a cup of boiling water in the air and it hit the ground as ice makes it all very clear.
The book is also full of a fair amount of humor at life in this extreme environment, ranging from the simply amusing (hang your clothes by a quick lick on the collar and then pressing them against the ice-covered walls of the cabin) through the faintly appalling ("solids only" outhouses that can short out and electrocute you if you deposit liquids).
There is no central theme or defining journey in this book. Her adventures were mostly spur-of-the-moment, taking advantage of opportunities to visit this station or that as they presented themselves. Rather than feeling diffuse, I think this worked well. It gave the book a real feeling of "I want to see everything!" as she moved from helping unload cargo to apprenticing at one scientific site or another.
Yet, the book fails to reach "extraordinary."
She is, at times, mean-spirited. The inhabitants of the Antarctic stations are mostly male and, of course, any largely-single-sex environment is going to provide amusement or annoyance to members of the opposite gender...depending upon how much they are affected by it. However, her tone was not one of amusement or even irritation; it was one of unending condescension and superciliousness. Her British hosts (she was a guest at several national camps during her time in Antarctica) come in for particular slighting. This appears to have been triggered by the fact that she wasn't made much of on her arrival (though it's not explicit, my reading of the events is that she arrived during the changeover period when those who had been isolated for nine months by the winter finally got to see their friends again) and wasn't immediately made an intimate in a group of individuals who had spent months and years isolated together.
I also found the story a little too mawkish. There are those books where the author articulates a spiritual journey and I find them fascinating. However, I'm not so fond of those books where the author substitutes a vague sentimentality instead of finding words to describe something meaningful. A paragraph ending in "The dignity of the landscape infused our minds like a symphony; I heard another music in those days." is fine...a pretty, poetic picture. However, when these types of paragraphs occur every few pages throughout a 341 page book, when "the landscape spoke to me so directly that I no longer seemed to be made of ice" is succeeded by "It's as though God has given me a gift, once in my life, to step off the planet for two months and listen to a different music," it becomes tiresome. By the end, I found that my mind would skim these paragraphs rather than savor them.
It's not a perfect book. However, Ms. Wheeler writes well and does make the continent come alive. There are so few contemporary books about travels in the Antarctic, and even fewer written from a woman's perspective, that I would recommend this one.
The book is both a travel memoir and a history of man's famed and forgotten travels in the frozen south. Wheeler interweaves her own travels, planned and spur of the moment, through the icy continent, visiting scientific bases and outposts, learning about the realities of life on the ice now with excerpts from Scott and Aumundsen and Shackleton's journeys. The historical information is never overwhelming, instead adding dimension to the experiences that Wheeler herself has in her journeys through Antarctica. Both the modern day and historical travels are fascinating. Wheeler also spends much time describing the other people who live and work on the ice. All of them are clearly a breed apart and all are moved by their time on the ice.
This is more contemplative than many travelogues but it is no less descriptive than most for taking place in a landscape that is, on first impression, so uniform. Wheeler captures the hardships that plague life on the ice in vivid language but she also celebrates this still so unknown continent also. Wheeler's trip to the actual South Pole is merely one instance of her travels around and given no more importance than her other camp visits. Her final weeks, spent with only one artist companion, in a hut set aside for their creative endeavors offers a sense of peace and closure to the end of her journeyings. Readers with an interest in history and the Antarctic will enjoy this slow and thorough narrative of a summer (and part of a winter) in the south.